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September 26, 2008
The Bad Review Revue
College: "The film hasn't been made so much as excreted. " -- Wesley Morris, BOSTON GLOBE
Disaster Movie: "This carpet-fouling mongrel of a movie no more deserves release than do anthrax spores." -- Jim Ridley, LA WEEKLY
Babylon A.D.: "An abysmal French thriller in which everyone speaks as if they've learned their lines phonetically." -- Elizabeth Weitzman
Righteous Kill: "A cop flick with all the drama of Law and Order: AARP." -- Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE
Space Chimps: "Sucks a whole lot of talented people into a wormhole of lousy." -- Michael Phillips, CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Star Wars: The Clone Wars: "A continuation of Lucas' experiments to see how much shit his dwindling supporters will take before finally saying 'enough' and moving on to adult pursuits." -- Pete Vonder Haar, FILM THREAT
September 25, 2008
Halloween Gaming, Part III: Miscellaneous Malevolence
Arkahm Horror: Call of Cthulhu, the board game. A massive game in almost every respect (scope, game length, pages of rules, price tag...), this cooperative game has all the players working as a team to stop an Ancient One from destroying the world. Highly recommended for those who love H. P. Lovecraft or games that simulate the RPG experience without requiring a lot of prep work. One downside, though: despite taking 4+ hours to play, the game isn't terribly difficult to defeat, which can lead to some anti-climatic endings. Fortunately, the many expansions address this by considerably upping the challenge (the Dunwich Horror expansion, in particular, has ben very well received).
A Touch of Evil: The newest offering from the guys who designed Last Night on Earth (see my top pick in Part I of this guide), Touch of Evil has the players working separately to defeat one of four different villains (the Scarecrow, the Horseman, the Werewolf, and the Vampire), and is very much a disciple of the Talisman school of game design: move around the board, bulk up your character, and then take on the Big Baddie. Of course there's a reason why Talisman is so wildly popular--this type of game is crazy fun--and ToE even improves on the formula by keeping the playing time down around an hour.
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Fearsome Floors: If you're the sort to shy away from games that require spatial reasoning skills, this might be the most terrifying horror game on this list. First, players move their tokens on the board, racing innocent victims through a dungeon toward the exit. Then the Monster moves, following a specific and unvarying algorithm: he moves forward until he "sees" one or more player tokens, at which point he turns and moves toward whichever is closest. As the Monster may turn several times during his movement, much of the game depends on your ability to correctly extrapolate his course. Played among analytical types the game can get bogged down in number-crunching, but in a casual group it's an exciting contest with lots of "oh crap, I did not see that coming" moments.
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Gloom: I'm no fan of "take that!" games, in which the players are constantly playing cards on one another to hinder progress (think: Killer Bunnies or Muchkin, neither of which I can abide). That said, two aspects of Gloom serve as an antidote to my reflexive dislike. First is the great theme, which turns the usual screw-your-buddy mechanic on it's head: the object is to be the most miserable, so you play horrible events on yourself and sic such things as "picnic in the park" on your opponents--ha! Second, the game features cool transparent cards, which allow you see the accumulation of various bonuses and penalties. Not a game I'd play often, but once a year before Halloween is just about perfect.
Werewolf: A number of commercial versions have cropped up (The Werewolves of Millers Hollow, Do You Worship Cthulhu?, etc.), but all you really need are the rules, a deck of cards, a bunch of friends, and a healthy dose of paranoia. You can read my ruminations on the game here.
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Those are my recommendations for Halloween Gaming. If you'd like to second any of my nominations, or add your own to the mix, feel free to do so in the comments.
See also: Halloween Gaming, Part I: Zombies, Halloween Gaming, Part II: Vampires and Witches. You can also view the entire Halloween Gaming Guide on one page here. Or, if you are in market for good games regardless of theme, check out my Good Gateway Games Guide.
September 24, 2008
Halloween Gaming, Part II: Vampires and Witches
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Dracula: A two-player game, with one person as the Count and the other as Dr. van Helsing. Each is searching London for their target cards (Dracula seeks victims, while van Helsing looks for coffins), and must do battle the underlings of the other. Dracula is unusual in that it has a strong memory-component: London is represented by a grid of face-down cards at which players may occasionally peek, but must simply remember what they are (and where they are) thereafter. I'll admit to liking the game despite the memory aspect, rather than because of it.
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Dawn Under: Dude, what is it with memory games and vampires? Like Dracula above, this one is also better if you're not a senile old man like me, though the mnemonic component in Dawn Under is more akin to the classic "Memory" game you no doubt played as a kid. Open graves in search of vacant ones in which your vampires can rest. But if you open a tomb in which another play has already placed a vampire (or garlic), you suffer a penalty. One of those games that you'll feel slightly guilty playing since it's obviously "for kids", but will find immensely enjoyable nonetheless. Nominated for the 2004 German Game of the Year award.
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Witch's Brew: Beautiful card game in which players strive to collect ingredients a cauldrons to create potions and cast spells. A relatively simple and short game (less than an hour), but with plenty of novel mechanisms you are unlikely to have seen before. Nominated for the 2008 German Game of the Year award.
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Techno Witches: Another witchly race, but these jet-setters ride state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners. Indeed nearly everything about this game is untraditional, from the fact that it's a boardgame with no board (wha-?), to the programmatic nature of movement (your witch doesn't budge until you've plotted out his next five moves--and then he does them all at once, possibly crashing into the other players as his does so). I'm not the first to observe that this is essentially a Harry Potter racing game without the license.
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September 23, 2008
October Surprise 2008 Predictions
September 22, 2008
Halloween Gaming, Part I: Zombies
Aside from the "holiday season" (Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanza / New Year's Eve Revelry / New Year's Day "oh god why did I drink the whole bottle of Cantaloupe Schnapps??" Celebration / etc.), no time of year is better suited for board gaming than Halloween. And, for years I have been meaning to write a comprehensive guide to horror-themed games in honor of the occasion. Unfortunately Halloween always creeps up on me, and it's typically October 26th or so before it occurs to me to sit down and write the thing--much too late for readers to acquire the games on the list in time for an All Hallow's Eve gaming bash. (This is also why, for a Halloween costume, I typically wind up just grabbing a Sharpie and writing "John Hodgman" on my t-shirt minutes before heading out to a party I've known about for months.)
So this year I'm starting the Halloween Gaming Guide early. Part I looks exclusively at zombie games, in part II we will cover vampires, and part III will showcase the rest of the best.
Please note that I am only featuring games that are currently in print and available in English, as this is intended to be a buying guide and not just my personal musings on the best horror games. Which is a long way of saying: don't email me and inveigh about the absence of The Slime Monster Game or whatever.
And so, ladies and ghouls, without further a-boo ...
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Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game: Though a relatively recent addition to the genre (it came out last year), the growing consensus is that this is the best zombie game on the market. LNoE puts some players in the role of Heroes and the rest as Zombies, fighting tooth and nail (and, of course, chainsaw) in the heart of a small town. The best thing about LNoE is it's replayability: the game comes with five different scenarios (with more available online), each of the playable Heroes is unique (the Hot Nurse can heal, the Sheriff always has a revolver, etc.), and the rulebook includes an "Advanced" section in case the basic game just doesn't include enough dynamite for your liking. Plus, an expansion was just released, ensuring enough variability for many Halloweens to come.
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Zombies!!!: HOLY SHIT THREE EXCLAMATION POINTS????!! Prior to Last Night on Earth this was indisputably the reigning king of Zombie boardgames, and many prefer it to the johnny-come-lately. Feign off the undead hordes as you make your way to the helipad and rescue. Note that, unlike Last Night on Earth, Z!!! is a cut-throat game of competition--in fact, the other players are often more hazardous to your health than the monsters. That's why some people like Z!!! better--and why others, like me, find the cooperative aspect of LNoE to be vastly more enjoyable.
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Mall of Horror: And besides, if I'm going to play a screw-your-buddy Zombie game, I want to play one that will sow discord and ill-will between me and my fellow players for decades to come! You know, like Mall of Horror, in which you don't fight the zombies, you just try to survive them. Every player has three characters; on each turn someone must die, and the unlucky victim is decided by popular vote. That's right: you decide the fate of your fellow players, and they decide yours. A game that could have easily gone onto my list of Friendship-Enders (and, in fact, is similar is spirit and mechanics to the game Lifeboats) which was second on that list).
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Give me the Brain and Lord of the Fries: Light, simple, inexpensive, and funny, Give me the Brain and Lord of the Fries differ from the games above in pretty much every respect save one: Zombies remain the stars of the show. In this case, you and your undead companions are workers in a fast-food restaurant that specializes in the grisliest of fare. Both titles are fairly straightforward card games despite the theme, and each has a significant luck component (so steer clear if that's not your thing). Still, the ease of learning and playing make these the most "family friendly" of the games on the list, and the grotesque elements of the artwork are tempered with enough humor to make them palatable to almost anyone.
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Zombie in my Pocket: Got no friends and/or money? Head over to Jay Is Games and read my review of Zombie in my Pocket, a free, solitaire zombie game that only requires a printer, a pair of scissors, and 15 minutes of your time. Quite an addictive little pastime.
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September 09, 2008
Today at the playground, Matthew Baldwin reported to a young girl that she was "very good at the monkey bars". It was subsequently announced by the subject that she is, in fact, "the best" at the monkey bars. Matthew Baldwin regrets the error.
Republican National Convention
I'd intended to liveblog some of the RNC Convention speeches as I had done for those of the Obamas and Hillary Clinton. But, owing to various causes, I was never in front of my laptop when the speakers were on the stage. The good news is that I heard most of them on the radio in real time, and came up with a mental list of witty and/or insightful comments for each. The bad news is that I am old and have since forgotten all of those observations, except for a vague notion that I had some killer joke involving Guillani and a bicycle with no seat.
Oh well. You know what they say: Lack of anything worth saying is the soul of blog.
Too dumb; didn't watch.
Sweet baby corn, can this guy deliver a speech or what? The "substance" of his tirade was laughable (Washington is a hotbed of liberalism in need of a McCain-Palin napalming), but few can spoon out the flummery with such aplomb. The crowd also did a good job of pretending like they believed a word of it, except when Romney said "it's time for the party of big ideas, not the party of Big Brother" and there was a momentary silence while everyone was, like, "wtf dude, I thought you were on our side ...?"
Okay, confession time: I kind of like Huckabee. I mean, I like him the same way I like America's Funniest Home Videos: fun to watch, but I'm glad I'm not the one getting a golf ball to the nuts. Were he ever elected president I would immediately pack up the family and move to Mimas.
Still, for all the right likes to espouse religion when it's politically expedient, Huckabee strikes me as the real deal. He's staunchly anti-abortion and anti-gay as you would expect, but also pro-environment (because God entrusted us with the stewardship of the Earth, he says), opposed to the death penalty in principle, and adopted a populism platform in the primaries that seemed to arise from genuine concern with poverty. I like that his positions seem to stem from a consistent philosophical framework, even though I think that framework is dead wrong. Better than those politicians that just adopt whatever position they think will help them win. (This is also why I liked Ron Paul, another candidate I swooned over specifically because there was zero chance that he would actually become president.)
Unfortunately, this was very much a standard convention speech, part of an orchestrated campaign to steal the "change" theme from the Democrats. Two fantastic lines, though. First, "I'm not a Republican because I grew up rich, but because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor, waiting for the government to rescue me." The second line, "[Palin] got more votes running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, than Joe Biden got running for president of the United States!" actually made me laugh out loud in my car (and I was genuinely disappointed to later learn that it was a categorically false statement--so sad).
Most of us -- most of us can lift our arms high in the air so that we can signify when we want something. [McCain] can't even lift his arms to his shoulder, which is a constant reminder that his life is marked not by what he's wanting to receive, but rather by what he has already given.Oh man, so clumsy. Nice metaphor guys, but that one could have used a few more hours in rewrite.
But while I have no strong opinions on Palin, I do have one grave concern: that she is simply going to serve as an empty vessel into which McCain--or, rather, the McCain campaign--can just pour slogans and bromides. You know, like Chemo.
By the way, I managed to get annotated draft of the speech in which several analogies were considered and discarded before it was decided to compare Palin and "a pitbull with lipstick". Here were some of the others:
I used to like and admire McCain. In fact, I'm one of those people who would have loved a Kerry/McCain ticket in 2004 (or, to be honest, a Democrat-Who-Was-Not-Kerry/McCain ticket). I appreciated his willingness to buck his own party, and agreed with him on many of the issues (especially his drive for campaign finance reform, opposition to torture, and rejection of the Bush tax cuts for the affluent). You know, back when he was a maverick.
Sadly, in the primary McCain took out more mortgages on his reputation as a reformer than he has on his nine houses. (Oh ZING! You can totally use that one.) So in February, when he finally caved on waterboarding, it was like the final scene in a Shakespearean tragedy. Or perhaps the final installment in a Lucas trilogy, as he joined the ranks of other honorable Republicans who pulled an Anakin. (Powell was another.)
Well, you could argue, all politicians do this: tack to the extremes during the primaries and then head for the center as the general election looms. Obama himself has reversed himself on a number positions, including public campaign funding, the FISA bill (for shame, Senator), and, today, 527s. That's bad, no doubt about it. But reversing yourself on your signature issues (all of them!) is something else entirely. McCain's reliance on lobbyists to run his campaign, and his gaming of FEC funding rules, for instance, is diametrically opposed to his past advocacy for campaign finance reform, the issue for which he is the most well-known.
McCain's acceptance speech was, above all else, boring. Too long, too biographical, and waaaaay too derivative of the Democrats message of change. (Seriously, even Biden didn't plagiarize like this. Curious how the "party of big ideas", as Romney dubbed it, can't cough up with a campaign slogan that hasn't in the barackobama.com metadata for the last eight months.)
Not that boring is bad--after eight years of Bush's recklessness, a little boring might be just what the doctor ordered. But, unfortunately, this speech wasn't "omg policy details zzzzzzzz" boring, but "omg is there anything in here that's not a platitude or a self-administered back-pat?" boring. Opening call for civility in the campaign, check. Lauding of the running mate, check. Laundry list of things he's done right in his career, check. The ceremonial calling-out of people placed in the audience and reciting their heart-warming and/or point-illustrating anecdotes, check. Subtle allusion to his time as a POW, check (albeit one followed, three minutes later, by a ten minute recounting of his time as a POW, for those who missed the earlier reference).
So, here's the good stuff:
I know how the military works, what it can do, what it can do better, and what it shouldn't do. I know how the world works. I know the good and the evil in it.This passage appears about two-thirds of the way through McCain's speech, and is immediately followed by the POW stuff. In journalism, that's called "burying the lede." Experience is McCain's most compelling argument, and why they chose to give it only perfunctory mention is beyond me. Maybe this only sells to people like me, for whom Obama's lack of experience is a genuine concern. Maybe they've determined that the base and the Independents are going to vote based on biography, and so that's what they are going to emphasize from here on out. I don't pretend to know.
Overall McCain's speech, while dull, succeeded in reassuring me that a McCain presidency wouldn't be a disaster. But it did nothing to convince me that such a scenario will ever come to pass. Even in the face of McCain's bounce, I still think Barack has this election in the bag.
September 08, 2008